El Chalate El Salvador Limited Release
- July 2017
- Written by : Andy Atkinson
Regional Retail Manager of New Markets and East Coast / Green Coffee Buyer
Each coffee buying season is ripe with opportunities to meet new growers, explore new places, source new coffees and develop new relationships. The ways we identify new partners are just as varied as the coffees themselves. But the one thing every season has in common is a nearly limitless sense of possibility and endless opportunities for growth. This year was a year of enormous growth in the emerging partnership between Intelligentsia and Finca Jenifer, a smallholder farm in the Chalatenango region of El Salvador.
Last year we introduced a coffee from Finca Jenifer that represented the first phase of a fresh Direct Trade relationship: the phase of mutual discovery in which we get to know each other and explore the possibility of longer-range collaboration. It was a lot we found on the cupping table while exploring the coffees Chalatenango had to offer; a lot that satisfied the first and most important pillar of our DT program: Exceptional Quality.
This year, I was able to visit the place that this extraordinary coffee came from, and that visit confirmed our hope that this coffee will become a perennial staple of our Direct Trade program.
When I traveled to Chalatenango this year after years of working exclusively in Santa Ana and La Libertad, it was my first venture into the mountainous region that is home to the highest elevations in El Salvador. In comparison with the rest of the country’s coffeelands, Chalate is a wild, rugged and underdeveloped place.
Finca Jenifer sits far up one of the highest points of the country’s coffeelands, beyond the reach of Chalatenango’s rocky roads, which leave visitors nearly 400 meters above the farm. That final stretch can only be traversed on foot or on horseback on a dusty trail through dense pine forests, a trek marked by the musical accompaniment of the wind whistling through the pines along the mountain’s ridges.
At Intelligentsia, we do not believe that all coffee landscapes are created equal. Some are endowed with more of the conditions conducive to great coffee than others. And in our hierarchy of coffee agroecology, Ethiopia looms large: a land made for growing great coffee. Even without steady reinvestment, state-of-the-art mills, intricate fertilizing practices or irrigation systems, it just continues to crank out exceptional coffees year after year. After spending time in the mountains around Finca Jenifer, seeing how the producers grow and mill their coffee, I can’t help but think of the La Palma region of Chalatenango as a little Ethiopia: it seems as if it were made to grow great coffee.
But relying passively on the status quo is not what producing amazing coffee is about. In building our Direct Trade network, we look for growers who are committed to hard work and innovation. Growers doing everything they can to take their great coffee to the next level. Isaí Portillo is the owner and operator of Finca Jenifer (less than three hectares, just under seven acres). He has been working the tiny farm since he and his brother purchased the land eight years ago, when it was planted not with coffee but with corn. It is still only 75% converted, but well on its way to becoming an anchor of Chalatenango’s coffee renaissance. He has chosen to break with the Pacas variety so common in Chalate, and plant a mix of Bourbon, Yellow Catuai and Caturra varieties.
Isaí’s wet mill is small and simple: a tiny two-room mill house with a small cement tank with and single hand-cranked depulper fed by a hose. But it is not the technology that sets Isaí’s mill apart, it is the location. It sits atop the farm at around 2000 meters in the cool, windy climate just below the ridgeline of the pine forest. This is the most striking differentiator from producers in other parts of El Salvador. The location of his mill shapes the flavors of his coffee: the incredible elevation and cool environment mean fermentation times are generally between 36 and 42 hours.
Once the coffee is milled and ready to be dried, it moves to one of the two tiny patios behind the mill house to dry in the shade under newly hung tarps. Though resources for such a small farm owned by someone making their living from fewer than three hectares of coffee are a little harder to come by than on El Salvador´s great estates, Isaí’s drive to try new things and maximize his coffee’s quality is creating a true standout in Chalatenengo. We are absolutely thrilled to present this year’s El Chalate Limited Release from Isaí Portillo’s Finca Jenifer during what we hope is its first year of many as an Intelligentsia Direct Trade partner.